Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner
The Gunner Labor government came to office last August promising to restore the trust of Territorians in government, after it had been shattered by four years of chaos, division and dubious (or worse) ethical behaviour by various members of the Giles Country Liberal Party regime. Enacting and boosting safeguards ensuring accountability and transparency were to be at the forefront of the new government’s program.
After nine months in office, how are they going? In my assessment, the record is none too impressive.
MLAs’ financial interests
A modest but worthwhile initiative to publish MLAs’ registrable interests (financial and property) online has been implemented. However, it appears that it will only be published online annually, whereas the Legislative Assembly (Disclosure of Interests) Act requires any alteration of interests to be notified to the clerk within 28 days. Accordingly, the online register is of extremely limited value as a transparency/accountability measure. There is no obvious reason why the online register should not be updated in real time so we are in a position to know whether an MLA has a conflict of interest in performing his or her duties to Territorians.
One of the Gunner government’s election promises was to convene an inquiry to look at reforming political donations laws. There appears to have been some funding for that initiative in the May budget, but, as far as I am aware, it has not yet been convened, nor anyone appointed to conduct it.
In the meantime, the Gunner government moved in Parliament a couple of weeks ago to enshrine in legislation its seemingly hasty decision late last year to impose a previously unannounced “policy” for a maximum floor area of 400 square metres for takeaway liquor outlets. The effect of the initial decision was to prevent the national Woolworths-owned Dan Murphy’s chain from establishing a store in Darwin. The effect of including that ban in parliamentary legislation, as opposed to mere subordinate legislation, will almost certainly be to prevent the circumstances surrounding the decision (including any connection with rather large donations to the ALP by interests associated with the Australian Hotels Association, whose members stand to benefit from the exclusion of Dan Murphy’s) from being probed by the Federal Court in proceedings commenced by Woolworths.
Similarly, the Gunner government promised to implement a local Independent Commission Against Corruption, an important accountability mechanism that exists in every other state (although not yet at federal level) and is currently being considered in the ACT. The NT ICAC has been funded to the tune of $3 million in the 2017-18 budget, but for inadequately explained reasons won’t actually commence until the second half of next year. In the meantime, neither the Ombudsman nor Commissioner for Public Interest Disclosures has the power to investigate alleged misdeeds by politicians or their staffers.
Whether the new ICAC, once established, would be given the power to investigate dubious actions occurring prior to its commencement (e.g. numerous Giles government actions and the ALP’s Dan Murphy’s shenanigans) is yet to be seen, but we can fairly safely predict that the answer will be no.
Essentially, that is the sum total of accountability and transparency measures the Gunner (Gunna?) regime has moved to introduce. Otherwise, the record is one of unfulfilled promises, inaction and in some cases actions that have actually reduced the government’s effective accountability to the public.
Resourcing of independent MLAs
In the latter category is Gunner’s refusal to provide any extra staffing or resources (other than two parliamentary library staff shared between all of them) to the five independent MLAs in the Legislative Assembly. The two CLP MLAs were deemed to be the official “Opposition” and given all the resources that accompany opposition status. Most importantly, that includes funding for the employment of 11 or so staffers, who always include portfolio experts like economists, lawyers, and health, education and other experts. Their assistance is vital to allow the MLAs to subject the government to effective scrutiny and oversight, a fundamental purpose of Parliament in a Westminster system.
In the NT Legislative Assembly that scrutiny function can now only be performed in a reasonably effective manner by the two CLP MLAs. Even though the five independents include very capable and experienced members like Gerry Wood and Terry Mills, their general parliamentary experience cannot compensate for their complete lack of expert staffing resources. There is no proper reason for Gunner to have refused to fund those resources.
The expense is minimal in the context of a $7 billion annual budget. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the new Chief Minister has cynically taken advantage of NT voters’ wholesale rejection of the CLP to achieve almost complete immunity from effective parliamentary scrutiny for his own government.
*Read the rest at Crikey blog The Northern Myth